Ian MacQuillin: The framing debate is tired, but listening to both sides will help create a third way

Squaring ethical circles is never easy, but nuance must play a part in the process

The role of the select committees of the Houses of Parliament is to investigate and scrutinise an issue and then make recommendations about it. 

The first stage is to gather evidence. The Defence Committee is conducting an enquiry on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, so it has heard evidence from expert witnesses such as Combat Stress, Help for Heroes and the secretary of state for defence.

If a select committee makes recommendations about how charities ought to fundraise, you would assume they had taken evidence from people with expertise in fundraising. Not necessarily. 

The International Development Committee recently published a report recommending that charities eschew negatively-framed images and stories and instead use “positive, realistic stories”. 

They also said that charities should “inform audiences about the drivers of poverty and inequality instead of giving simplistic messages about the difference donations can make”.

Despite making recommendations about how charities ought to fundraise, little evidence was submitted to the committee about why charities use negative framing. Why not?

Perhaps it didn’t occur to the committee to look for it, or maybe they didn’t recognise fundraisers as professionals with relevant expertise to be considered. 

They might not have thought they needed to hear what fundraisers had to say. The committee’s recommendations are not new or revelatory. Perhaps, they say this as the latest instalment of a well-rehearsed narrative for which equally well-rehearsed counter-arguments need not be considered.

Perhaps there was something else at play. The recommendation came in a report about racism in the aid sector. If the argument is that negative framing is, if not explicitly racist, then a product of implicit, institutional racism in the aid sector, then why would anyone want to hear – or make – arguments in favour of something that is considered to be racist? 

There are no ‘both sides’ to the issue of racism. Setting the issue in this context might also be why there were no evidence submissions defending the use of negative framing.

In its advocacy of positive framing, the committee seems to have made the assumption that only good – and no harm – can come from adopting positive frames; whereas only harm – and no good – can come from negative framing.

But there is a good that derives from negative framing: money. 

The evidence is not conclusive, but it does tilt towards negatively-framed messages being more successful in fundraising, particularly donor acquisition, as the DEC's two most recent appeals - for Afghanistan and Ukraine – show. At present, there is not a tonne of evidence showing how positive framing can be used successfully (some of which is summarised here)

This is, and always has been, the ethical dilemma inherent in the polarisation of negative and positive framing.

Positive framing has the good outcome of tackling harmful behaviours such as stereotyping and othering; but the detrimental outcome of raising less money.

Negative framing has the good outcome of raising more money to tackle poverty; but the harmful outcome of perpetuating stereotypes, othering and so on.

Squaring this ethical circle is not easy. But if it is to be squared, both sides of the argument need to be heard. 

The select committee appeared only to pay attention to the good outcomes of positive framing and the bad outcome of negative framing. In so doing, they made a bald statement about what charities ought to do, but glossed over how charities could do it while still raising the money they need.

What are the takeaways?

First, if the ethical dilemma involves asking for donations, fundraising cannot be excluded from the ethical decision-making process.

Second, solutions to complex problems rarely resolve into binary choices. 

Third, reducing complex problems to binary choices (as between positive and negative framing) inevitably means you cut yourself off from the good that the ‘other side’ of the argument might deliver. 

Perhaps more importantly, you turn a deaf ear to the criticisms the other side may have of your side of the argument – criticisms that might be highly relevant.

Fourth, dogmatically sticking to one pole of an argument makes it very hard to find new solutions that sit in the centre, or do not fit on the spectrum at all. 

According to London College of Communication’s Jess Crombie, the ‘positive vs negative’ debate is tired and unhelpful. 

Jess, Ruth Smyth and I recently wrote a paper for the Journal of Philanthropy and Marketing arguing that ethical framing is not about whether a positive or negative frame has been used, but whether the people in the frame exercised voice and agency in telling their own story. 

To come up with that third position, we listened to both existing sides of the framing issue.

Ian MacQuillin is director of the fundraising think tank Rogare


Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now